Peter Hall
2005 Balzan Prize for The Social and Cultural History of Cities since the Beginning of the 16th Century
Apologia Pro Vita Sua

Sigmund Freud famously said that he had spent his life asking “What do women want?” but had never found out. I’ve spent my academic life asking “How do cities work?” and I don’t think that I’ve yet cracked my mystery either. A maverick English politician once asserted that all political careers end in failure. Perhaps that is equally true of academic careers. I’m sometimes reminded of those haunting words at the end of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of

«...the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It luded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.»

We do that in academia: we start every day, every project, in the vain hope that finally we will find the philosopher’s stone, the secret of our part of life; it always eludes us, but we continue to chase it. It’s been that way for me, pursuing the secret of cities, for nearly fifty years of academic life.

Let me briefly try to summarise this quest. Over fifty years ago, as a Ph.D. student, I embarked on a subject that my supervisor warned me was far too big: to try to understand why industry located in London, and particularly in certain parts of London, over the previous 100 years. Looking at workshop industries like clothing and furniture and watchmaking – the first already disappeared from the face of London, the other two soon to follow – I found that they clustered in dense industrial quarters where many small workshops could specialise and gain economies of scale. A great English economist, Alfred Marshall, had also studied these industries and had developed the concept of the industrial district, based on economies of agglomeration. At that point, these districts were being threatened by competition from more efficient integrated factories, based on what we now have learned to call Fordist principles. One of the great ironies of my long academic career is that we have learned how such districts – we now call them clusters – have proved remarkably resilient in such dynamic regions of the world as Northern Italy and California’s Silicon Valley. Marshall understood why; he described how, in such clusters:

«When an industry has chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. Good work is rightly appreciated, inventions and improvements in machinery, in processes and the general organization of the business have their merits promptly discussed: if one man starts a new idea, it is taken up by others and combined with suggestions of their own; and thus it becomes the source of further new ideas. And presently subsidiary trades grow up in the neighbourhood, supplying it with implements and materials, organizing its traffic, and in many ways conducing to the economy of its material» (Marshall 1890, 271).

That served me well when, thirty years later, I came back to the same theme by a different route.

Meanwhile, events took my research in a different direction. An old academic friend suggested that I should write a book about planning London. I did so, and the result was published in 1963: London 2000, a call for planning the UK capital on a much larger scale than anyone had contemplated. I suggested there that even Greater London, the entity that became a unit of local government two years later and has survived in various forms ever since, was no longer great enough. The green belt, established around London to limit its growth after World War II, had done so only in a limited physical sense. London in fact had continued to grow, but had leapt over the green belt: it was experiencing what Dutch planners later called concentrated deconcentration, a process whereby people and jobs move out from the city but then reconcentrate in smaller places some distance away. The eight new towns, established after the war to accommodate overspill from London, were only a part of the process. This, I argued, was a perfectly logical and efficient process and should be encouraged by establishing a further generation of new towns, located up to 100 kilometres away. Gratifyingly, a government response the next year suggested the same policy: I was vindicated, and two years after that I was invited to join the newly established South East Economic Planning Council, a position I retained for thirteen years up to the Council’s abolition by Mrs. Thatcher in 1979.


Meanwhile, I had further developed my interest in the phenomenon of large and complex metropolitan regions. I was invited to write a book on the subject, The World Cities, which was published in 1966. Its main message was that such areas represented the trend of the future: not subject to the vagaries that affected manufacturing industry, their strong base in advanced services caused them to continue to grow and to thrive. In the course of writing the book, I became interested in a phenomenon illustrated by the Randstad Holland and the Rhine-Ruhr area of Germany: the polycentric urban region, an area where no one major city dominated the rest. My research suggested that this arrangement gave many of the economic and social advantages of living in a big city without any of the concomitant disadvantages. As a result I became particularly interested in the planning of Randstad Holland, and developed many academic and professional relationships with Dutch planners which led to repeated visits over the years.


During the period from 1968 to 1977, this lead to the pursuit of two parallel research themes. One was a very large study of urban growth in England and the effect of the postwar planning system in constraining and shaping its growth. This culminated in publication of the two-volume study The Containment of Urban England, in 1973, and then in a comparative study with Marion Clawson, the veteran American urbanist, who had led a parallel study of the eastern seaboard of the United States. This was published as Planning and Urban Growth: An Anglo-American Comparison, also in 1973. These studies deliberately used a spatial framework for analysis that was derived from the Metropolitan Statistical Areas familiar to American urban analysts, and titled Functional Urban Areas. In turn, this led to a major international study, sponsored by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, culminating in the publication of Growth Centres in the European Urban System in 1980.


The parallel work was very different in character: sponsored by the European Cultural Foundation in Amsterdam, it was an extremely ambitious attempt to forecast development in major policy areas – urban planning, education, the environment – across Europe. Supported by major research, teams of experts brainstormed and finally came together to draft the outcome, Europe 2000, in 1977. The book won the Bentinck Prize, for the work making the most significant contribution to European integration, in 1979.

At that point, 1980, I made a significant career move: to a chair in city planning at the University of California at Berkeley, which I held in parallel with my British chair at the University of Reading. There, I soon became fascinated by the Silicon Valley phenomenon: one of the world’s greatest industrial concentrations, created out of literally nothing in a little over forty years. Seeking an explanation, I became fascinated by the career of another economist: Joseph Schumpeter, who had begun his career in Vienna just after 1900 and ended it in Harvard fifty years later. In 1983 I wrote a very brief article for an English magazine to celebrate the centenary of his birth, the very same year as the birth of John Maynard Keynes and the death of Karl Marx. I called it “The Third Man of Economics” and I began “This is the centenary of the great economists; but one has been forgotten”.

Schumpeter was remarkable because, alone of the great economists, he had actually sought to understand how economies grow and change over time. He did so in a vast 1100-page book, Business Cycles, published in 1939. It was a study in economic history. In great detail he sought to show how the world economy had gone from boom to bust and then to bomb again, in 57-year-long cycles first identified by a Soviet economist, Nikolai Kondratieff, in the 1920s. Schumpeter argued that these long waves were the result of bursts of innovation, the commercial exploitation of innovations, which created entire new industries and new methods of production. Following his book and a follow-up study by another German scholar, Gerhard Mensch, I became convinced that here indeed was the fundamental motor of the global economy – but with the important extra detail that the new industries arose in new places from the old ones, thus reshaping the geography of nations and of cities.


I followed up the article by a longer piece, The Geography of the Fifth Kondratieff, in a book I co-edited with Ann Markusen, a Berkeley colleague, Silicon Landscapes, in 1985. In it, I argued that innovation increasingly came out of scientific research and so was associated with strong universities like Stanford – the fons et origo of the entire Silicon Valley phenomenon. And that led quickly to two parallel studies co-authored by research teams on both sides of the Atlantic: one in Berkeley, High-Tech America, another in Reading, Western Sunrise, looking in detail at the new industrial regions like Silicon Valley, Highway 128 around Boston, and the M4 Corridor in Southern England, both published in 1986-87. And those were followed by two more specialised studies. The Carrier Wave, with Paschal Preston in Reading, looked in detail at the phenomenon of the electrical and electronic industries within the Kondratieff waves and their location. The Rise of the Gunbelt, with Ann Markusen, Sabina Deitrick and Scott Campbell in California, looked at a neglected research topic: the remarkable impact of Pentagon defence spending on R&D and its geographical impacts during the Cold War era from 1946 to the end of the 1980s; ironically, it was published in 1991, just after the Cold War came to an end.

Finally, as part of this decade of research on the nature of innovation, I worked together with Manuel Castells, the great Spanish-American urban sociologist, on a study of the world’s technopoles: attempts by government to create, or recreate, new industrial traditions through planned innovation in the form of science parks or even entire science cities. The case studies, coming from places as far apart as Japan, Siberia and England, are very rich and very varied; our conclusions are quite complex. But, at the risk of over-simplification, you might say they are: it isn’t at all easy; it takes a long time; and you’d better be realistic about what you can hope to achieve.

By that time, the early 1990s, I had returned to a full-time chair at University College London, and was already contemplating and mapping out a book that would synthesise all this work, and more, within a larger historical and geographical canvas. I wanted to write a book about the nature of industrial innovation and its geography. The English literary agent Michael Sissons, who has master-minded many of London’s literary successes over four decades, wanted me to write a “big book” on the past, present and future of cities. The two concepts fused into Cities in Civilization, published in 1998. This was by far the biggest book, physically and conceptually, that I have ever published or am ever likely to publish. Industrial innovation became just a second type of creativity, after artistic creativity, that had shaped the fortunes of cities over centuries. There was a third and very interesting type: the marriage of art and technology, as illustrated by the movie industry and popular recorded music, both distinctively American mass-consumption industries of the 20th century, and likely to become dominant in the 21st – or so I argued in the book’s final chapter. And finally there was urban innovation: the kind of innovation that city administrations had to make in order to keep their cities running, from pure water in Imperial Rome, through subways in New York in 1900, to freeways in mid-20th century Los Angeles. This fourth section of the book was in some ways a supplementary volume to a major study of 20th century city planning history, Cities of Tomorrow, which I published in 1988 and which remains my personal favourite piece of writing.

In Cities in Civilization I argued that creativity, or innovation – whether it took the form of artistic creation or technical-industrial innovation, or a combination of the two – tended to come in relatively short bursts: the Italian Renaissance, or Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, were comparable with the first Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, or a subsequent revolution like the ones that spawned modern electronics. And likewise with their combination, as in 20th century Hollywood. Evidently, too, these bursts were concentrated in certain cities: classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, Shakespearian London, late 19th century Paris, Manchester in the Industrial Revolution, Detroit at the time of Henry Ford, Silicon Valley today. All these places had what could be called a creative or innovative milieu.

The book reached two rather contradictory conclusions. New cities could arrive on the world map, while some great cities could show relative decline. But some successful cities, like London and Paris and New York, could go on being successful for a very long time – about 2,000 years, in the case of London or Paris. They only manage this by constantly renewing themselves. Or rather, cities don’t do that: their people do. But they only do so in a particular creative (or innovative) milieu. Marshall’s wonderful phrase, long ago, caught that quality: it was “in the air”. Trying to identify the quality of that air is the question that still intrigues me.


After publication of the big book, between 1999 and 2002, I spent a deal of time with four academic colleagues – Ian Gordon of LSE, Nick Buck of the University of Essex, Michael Harloe at Essex and Mark Kleinman, then of LSE – on a major study of London’s economy and society, in which we sought to capture the elusive linkages between economic competitiveness and social cohesion. I think that some of the conclusions we published in our book, Working Capital: Life and Labour in Contemporary London, are particularly pertinent in view of the riots that racked French cities in the autumn of 2005. We found that – despite sharply increasing income disparities, arising in part of its economic success – London was a relatively well-integrated, socially coherent city; it does not contain vast disadvantaged and segregated ghettos on the model of Chicago or Paris. But it does contain intensely deprived pockets, and these should be a real matter of concern. London is largely governed through its 32 boroughs, and these demonstrate an extraordinary range of styles – and, it must be said, competence – of governing capacity. How well they handle local deprivation is an important question for the future.

Out of that study, we ended with the transcripts of well over one hundred interviews with ordinary people in and around London. Hardly any of this rich material could directly be used. We agreed that I should work to try and turn them into a more direct record, in which Londoners would speak about their everyday lives – often difficult, sometimes heart-renderingly so, but also moving. I produced this manuscript in 2004, but – such are the problems of 21st century academic publishing, at least in the UK – we could not interest a commercial publisher. One wonderful outcome of the Balzan Prize is that, after this frustration, we shall use a relatively small part of the prize money to publish the book ourselves. London Voices London Lives will appear in mid-2006, as part of a new series from the Young Foundation (formerly the Institute of Community Studies).

But what I’m particularly interested in now, and want to investigate with new doctoral researchers, is what you might call the air movements. In my most recent research – an ambitious international enterprise, undertaken with colleagues in seven other European research teams, including Zürich, and to be published in spring 2006 –, we’ve been looking at the development of what we call polycentric mega-city-regions: South East England, Central Belgium, Randstad Holland, Rhine-Ruhr and Rhine-Main in Germany, the northern part of Switzerland, the Paris region and Greater Dublin. The idea of such polycentric regions is of course the one I identified long ago in the Randstad chapter of The World Cities, and the statistical framework we use for our analysis is a development of the same Functional Urban Regions as we used in our studies of the 1970s. Perhaps the most intriguing research finding from our study, to be published in 2006 as The Polycentric Metropolis: Learning from Mega-City Regions in Europe, is that there is a critical distinction between two different kinds of urban polycentricity. There’s of course the physical or morphological type, represented by Randstad Holland and Rhine-Ruhr: many roughly equal cities, none dominant in size or importance. But there is also a completely different type. Functional polycentricity, meaning that the cities function independently or at least semi-independently: they do not depend on a big central city to function well. And the truly intriguing feature is that these two do not seem to go together: one does not follow from the other. A morphologically polycentric region like the Randstad proves to be quite dependent on the strength of Amsterdam in advanced business services. Conversely, places in South East England like Reading and Southampton and Milton Keynes have a life independent of London, although of course they also relate to and through London. In such regions, the creative dynamic of a central city like Zürich or London seems to blow like a gale, scattering innovative seeds in other neighbouring places – while around Paris, for instance, it doesn’t seem to happen.

In my Balzan-funded research programme, I want to follow that up. I plan to extend my geographical framework from the South East corner to the rest of England, to try to understand a question plaguing our British government: why, in our country, is economic dynamism so unequally distributed? Exactly how and why do London and the South East region dominate our economy? Why are there so few points of light in northern England, in just a few of our great northern cities, like Manchester and Leeds? Is our only hope to expand the dynamic South East into our midlands – or alternatively, to try to extend the creativity of those few northern cities into their economically depressed hinterlands?

I want to investigate this by analysing just how local economic growth has been occurring, locality by locality, through the shift from contracting factory and goods-handling jobs into the expanding producer and consumer service economies. I will try to investigate a few of the successful places in more detail, asking how they were propelled into a virtuous circle of growth, in order to suggest how many other places might do the same.

There is a parallel research agenda, impelled by the one piece of the POLYNET research that proved a relative failure. This was the attempt directly to measure the flows of information between firms and between places in such polycentric regions, by measuring both business travel and telecommunication flows – telephone calls, email messages. After a great deal of cogitation and discussion, we opted for a web-based survey of business leaders that had proved successful in another context in Switzerland. Unfortunately, it seems that most European captains of industry are less friendly to research probing, or maybe are suffering from a surfeit of such studies: whatever the reason, the response was poor and the results thus not statistically significant. Since completion of the study, however, I have discovered a rich potential source: the geography of mobile telephone traffic. The hope is to interest a mobile phone operating company sufficiently to be able to open up the traffic records for a number of European urban regions – ideally, the eight in the POLYNET study, for which this would be a follow-up.

If I succeed even partially in that, I’d like finally to use part of the prize for what I can only describe as an intellectual holiday. I want to extend my interests outwards, to investigate The City and the Idea of Europe: what a common urban life says for the nature of European identity, thus trying to address key issues in the European Union highlighted by the collapse of the constitutional proposals and the intense debate concerning the possible entry of Turkey. This study would look at geography and at the entire historical development of Europe and its cities since earliest times, in order to try to answer the difficult question: What do we mean by “Europe” or “European culture”? How far can it be defined in geographical terms, and insofar as it can, what are the relevant boundaries? I’ll hope to do this with a young researcher who has a background in European historical geography – and also greater linguistic competence than, alas, I posses.

I won’t promise that I shall finally solve the mystery that has been worrying me these past four decades. But perhaps, through the generous award of this prize, I may get a little nearer to the answer. If I’m even partially successful, then at last I’ll respond to the entreaties of my wife and contemplate partial retirement – at least, so long as no further research distractions come my way.


The Industries of London, London, Hutchinson, 1962 London 2000, London, Faber, 1963; 1969

The World Cities, London, Weidenfeld, 1966. French, German, Italian, Spanish and Swedish translations published simultaneously

The Containment of Urban England (with R. Drewett, H. Gracey, R. Thomas), London, Allen & Unwin, 1973

Planning and Urban Growth: An Anglo-American Comparison (with M. Clawson), Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1973

Europe 2000, London, Duckworth, 1977

Growth Centres in the European Urban System (with D. Hay), London, Heinemann, 1980

Silicon Landscapes (ed. with A. Markusen), Boston, Allen & Unwin, 1985

High Tech America: The What, How, Where and Why of the Sunrise Industries (with A. Markusen and A. Glasmeier), Boston, Allen & Unwin, 1986

Western Sunrise: Genesis and Growth of Britain’s High Tech Corridor (with M. Breheny, D. Hart and R. McQuaid), London, Allen & Unwin, 1987

The Carrier Wave: New Information Technology and the Geography of Innovation, 1846-2003 (with P. Preston), London, Unwin Hyman, 1988

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